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Saturday 23 February 2019


Will to Power

Can renewables power the planet? Absolutely. Will they? Not the way things are going. We’re trying a new Editor’s Notes format that includes Tortoise guests and members in their own words on one burning question: how to switch to clean energy before it’s too late.

In the past ten days Tortoise has hosted a ThinkIn on renewable energy and President Trump has convened a panel to question his government’s findings on climate change. One conclusion to draw from the ThinkIn was that it’s quite possible to power the planet with renewable energy alone, given the political will. One conclusion to draw from Trump’s scepticism is that even now, in the world’s most powerful country, that will is absent.

This disconnect is dangerous. Evidence is piling up – in science, insurance premiums and national security briefings – that the longer climate change goes unchecked the more drought, hunger, forced migration and extreme weather it will bring. And yet the indispensable nation, constructed to be responsive to reason, appears deaf to it.

It’s depressing but it didn’t stop us talking. We started with the sun. Could we agree that several thousand times more energy than humans need at any given time arrives on Earth as solar radiation? We could. (It would have been obtuse not to; see “further reading” below.) But it’s one thing to bask in the sun and quite another to store enough of its energy to abandon fossil fuels.

Energy storage is one of two huge practical hurdles to be cleared before humanity can seriously claim to be cleaning up its act. Keith Maclean, a renewables consultant to the UK and Scottish governments, made the point that fossil fuels are in fact solar energy, brilliantly and densely stored over millions of years. The renewables industry has to match that storage brilliance and it won’t be easy.

Keith Maclean on storage

The energy density of fossil fuels is the basic reason they have proved so practical, and the business of extracting them has grown so large. How large? Bruce Davis had some numbers. There are $90 trillion of fossil fuel-backed assets of which at last $60 trillion need to be transformed into renewables-backed assets. This is huge hurdle number two.

Bruce Davis on money

The scale of the energy business forces us to look at its next few decades as an asset management challenge, even if we’d prefer to think of it as an environmental one. If we try to reorient so much of the global economy too fast it could crash, or so the argument goes. Even if the oil majors found a way to transition away from oil overnight they’d risk spooking their investors, including pension funds on which millions of us will eventually depend. This is one reason, Juliet Davenport of Good Energy said, why so many apparently respectable voices routinely undershoot when trying to forecast consumers’ take-up of solar power and electric cars.

Juliet Davenport on forecasts

So the rich north is short on political will and over-cautious for fear of tanking the world economy. But time is short. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gives us 12 years to act to limit average temperature increases to 1.5 degrees this century. Failure to act within that window could render later action pointless.

What’s to be done? Focus on the developing world, said Mwenya Kawesha, who works on renewables at Accenture.

Mwenya Kawesha on leapfrogging

In countries where there is no centralised power grid there’s no point building one when the science of clean generation and efficient distribution points to a decentralised system with myriad mini-power stations instead of a few enormous ones.

Juliet Davenport on AI

Not that the rich world is off the hook in terms of innovation. As we shift to renewables to power our cars and heat our homes over the next 30 years we’ll need to “squash the duck”. That sounded interesting if not humane. It seemed to be about flattening the energy demand curve over the 24-hour cycle, but the details are complex so we’ve asked Davenport to explain them in a piece we’ll run later this month or early next. We’ll also be looking at hydrogen as an alternative energy store to batteries (not least in a piece on the Toyota Mirai fuel cell car in our forthcoming short book of long reads). And we’ll worry about how to shift so many fossil fuel-backed assets to the renewables sector without precipitating a crisis.

Could this mammoth task in fact be left to light-touch regulation and the market? After the ThinkIn someone suggested that the moment Blackstone, the world’s biggest hedge fund, announces it’s pulling out of Exxon, will be the moment Big Oil finally knows the game is up. (You read that here first. We may be about slowing down, but still.) GW

Further reading

Solar FAQs is a paper by Jeff Tsao of the Sandia National Laboratory in the US, and others, that demonstrates in plain English and big round numbers solar’s near-total dominance over all other forms of renewable energy. It’s backed up by exhaustive technical references for those who want them.

The New York Times has a good primer on Trump’s new climate panel, led by a Princeton physicist with no formal training in climate science who believes we need more carbon in the atmosphere, not less.